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FAA Gives Air Traffic Computer OK

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Operations at the regional air traffic control center in El Toro were back to normal Wednesday, Federal Aviation Administration officials said, after a series of computer outages was traced to brittle, broken wires inside aging memory storage units.

The FAA’s explanation came after air traffic controllers told The Times on Tuesday that a multimillion-dollar computer system installed 2 1/2 months ago had failed 104 times on Sunday, endangering air safety.

But “no new computer system was involved,” Jim Panter, manager of the Coast Terminal Radar Approach Control facility, said Wednesday. “It was strictly old equipment that needed to be replaced.”

From about 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, flight data repeatedly disappeared from video display screens used by air traffic controllers at Coast TRACON, sometimes for as long as five minutes, officials said. During the outages, radar still showed each airplane’s position, but the only way to know a plane’s altitude, speed or identity was through voice communication with pilots.

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“It wasn’t really that dangerous, because we still had the radar,” Panter said.

A special crew from the Federal Aviation Administration’s technical center in Atlantic City, N.J., worked on successive nights this week to solve the problem, but because of a parts shortage some outages still occurred Monday and Tuesday, Panter said. There were no outages Wednesday, he said.

A heat build-up aggravated the situation on Sunday, Panter said, with the computer system shutting itself down and restarting, catching up with new data, as it tried on its own to locate the memory storage problem.

Four of the Univac computer’s 11 “memory modules” went out on Sunday because of four cracked or broken wires, Panter added.

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“They’ve all been replaced now, so there shouldn’t be any repeat,” he said.

The computer system involved has been in use at least since 1972, Panter said, although it has been upgraded several times with new software. He said the memory modules had been used for at least 12 years.

The software was not involved in Sunday’s failures, Panter said, but FAA officials said it has been involved in problems at other TRACON facilities.

“Just like any program, the new software has had its glitches,” said FAA spokesman John Leyden in Washington.

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